Breathing razor blades

In his 12 years as a fire fighter, Leighton Allen had never seen anything like it.

“I made my peace with God a few times there," the Bowning volunteer said.

The Kiwi native dropped in at Bowning Pub to relive some of it with his mates on Thursday evening.

He'd been out on the fire front for more than 10 hours on Tuesday night, and a further six or seven hours on Wednesday night.

It was his first ever assignment with the Bowning crew, and despite his New Zealand experience, nothing could prepare him for the sheer force of the bushfire at Berremangra.

“It felt very uncomfortable and scary - like breathing razor blades.

“Every time I breathed in, it felt like my throat was melting.

“It's the scariest thing I've ever been in... petrifying is an understatement."

He said it was the speed of the inferno that astonished him.

“One minute we were watching it come down the gullies and ridges, then it just went dark - it was like an apocalypse."

The truck was engulfed by fire. The crew had been hard at work directing the fire around the house they were protecting, when the wind changed direction and blocked off their exit.

“We were stuck in the middle of it all... I heard from the captain to get... down and I put a hose up to shield myself and watched as the fireball went over the top of us."

He said the decision was then made “to make a run for it” through the wall of fire to escape.

“So we just ran through it and two or three seconds later we were shaking but back in fresh air again," he said.

“I would not care if I never saw that situation again in my life."

It was Leighton's first day on the job, and the experience couldn't be more different to New Zealand.

“I'm used to search and rescue, crashes and house fires in New Zealand - not 100 kilometre bushfires!"

At times during the past few days he has wished he could carry a weapon to euthanase injured wildlife. He saw a kangaroo become trapped at a fenceline and heard its screams as the fire engulfed it. It was still moving after the front passed.

But the experience has not turned him off fighting fires and he is keen to get back out there as soon as he can.

“I'm just better prepared for next time.

“The thing that got me was how many firefighters there were with tears in their eyes, worried about their homes and families, but they weren't going to leave their boys [team].”

(No hope to stop it)

With a blaze as intense as the Childowla Road fire on Tuesday, there was no hope that firefighters could stop it – they were merely “diverting” it around homes in a property protection strategy.

“There’s no way to stop a fire, it’s just too fast and too hot – we were just saving houses,” Bowning Rural Fire Service volunteer Jason Austin told the Tribune.

His unit was the first to arrive at the Childowla Road fire front on Tuesday afternoon. They were tasked to protect a yard full of sheep and one of the two nearby homes.

“One minute it’s 100 metres away, next minute trees were bursting into flames in front of us,” he said.

“We had to divert the fire around the house.

“I thought it was a miracle that the house was saved, but apparently what we did saved it.”

He signed up to RFS a few years ago but had never experienced a blaze like this one.

“It was pretty intense with the heat and smoke – we couldn’t see or breathe… it was only a matter of minutes and everything turned black.”

“The fire just came and swept across the road and burnt everything except the house.”

He had vomited inside his breathing apparatus.

But when he finishes work again tonight he will be keen to go out fighting fires again wherever he is needed.

“We’re all only part of a team. No-one is trying to be a hero or anything. We’re just doing our thing.”

Firefighter Jason Austin cools off at Bowning Pub on Thursday night after an intense experience on the fire front.

Firefighter Jason Austin cools off at Bowning Pub on Thursday night after an intense experience on the fire front.


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